By Oliver Holmes for The Guardian
Jakarta is holding elections on Wednesday to decide who will be the next governor of the 10-million strong capital, the powerhouse of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Why is that important?
Winning the gubernatorial elections is seen as an unofficial stepping stone to the presidency. Current president Joko Widodo moved from Jakarta governor to the country’s highest office in 2014. The next presidential election is in 2019.
In addition to that, the poll in Jakarta is the most bitterly contested election the city has ever seen. It has become a testing ground for Indonesian values of moderate Islam and pluralism.
At the centre of the fight is Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed ‘Ahok’, who was Widodo’s deputy and has governed the city since 2014. He is considered the frontrunner.
Ahok is a Christian and ethnic Chinese making him a double minority.
During the past few months, conservative Muslim groups have organised several large protests that have shut down parts of the city in rallies against him.
How did that start?
These groups have argued for a long time that the Qur’an demands that Muslims cannot vote for non-Muslim candidates.
And Ahok has criticised his political opponents for referencing a versein the Koran that warns Muslims against allying with Christians and Jews.
In September, Ahok suggested those who used the passage against him were “lying”, leading to outrage from some hardliners who interpreted his comments as criticism of the Islamic holy text.
He later apologised but is now on trial for alleged blasphemy, a charge he denies. His supporters say the case against him is politically motivated.
Ahok’s opponents in the upcoming elections, Agus Harimurtri Yudhoyono — the son of the former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — and Anies Baswedan, a former education minister, have been criticised for not supporting Ahok in the trial.
What are the stakes?
International militant jihadists, some with influence and members in Indonesia, are also looking to capitalise on the anti-Ahok sentiment.
The main group behind the demonstrations that have locked down the capital, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), formed in 1999 and is known for violent demonstrations and attacks on minorities.
The group tried unsuccessfully in 2014 to block Ahok from becoming governor on the grounds that a Christian should not lead a Muslim-majority city. And later that year, a protest by the FPI turned violent leaving several police officers injured.
But they are a fringe group, right?
Indonesians largely practice a moderate form of Islam. While the FPI is a relatively small group, the country’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, has told its 40 million members not to support the protests.
But Indonesia’s Ulama Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body, agreed that Ahok should be prosecuted.
Police banned a fourth rally planned for last Saturday but allowed a prayer session at Jakarta’s grand Istiqlal mosque. Tens of thousands attended.
When will we know the results?
One of the three candidates needs to receive 50% of the vote to win. So many observers agree the result will not be definitive on Saturday.
A second round of voting with the two leading candidates will probably take place in April.